Why Massive Satellite Launch Signals Start of IoT Revolution

NEWS ANALYSIS: The Dec. 3 launch aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carried 64 tiny satellites into orbit, with several of those spacecraft dedicated to a new wave of IoT communications.

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It was the sort of picture-perfect launch that has now become routine for SpaceX, with a Falcon 9 rocket on its third trip into space carrying a pair of deployment vehicles from Spaceflight designed to safely launch dozens of satellites into their respective orbits. Among those satellites were several satellites devoted specifically to providing communications for internet of things devices worldwide.

What’s different about these satellites is that they’re intended to work with low-power devices that don’t need continuous contact. They are the sort of devices such as pipeline monitors or shipping container trackers that previously had been difficult or impossible to monitor in remote areas.

While satellite communications for such devices has been around for some time using services such as Iridium or Inmarsat, those services are more oriented for constant communications, and the communications devices they use require more battery power. The new IoT satellites are designed to work with devices that require substantially less power.

These small satellites are also significantly less expensive than communications satellites of years past. Because they are small, they cost less to launch. Those lower costs translate into less-expensive monitoring for IoT users.

Satellite Services a Lot Less Expensive Now

For example, Fleet Space Technologies, which had two of its IoT satellites on board today’s launch, is offering monitoring services for $29 AUD (Australian dollars, approximately $21.33 US) per portal. The Fleet portals include satellite communications and a LoRaWAN gateway that can connect up to 10 devices at that price. LoRaWAN is a low-power, long-range form of device communications designed for IoT.

The way the Fleet system works is that the portals collect data from the devices that are in communication with it, and then it sends that data to the Fleet satellites. The two satellites that were launched Dec. 3 will allow the portals to communicate a few times a day. However, Fleet is already working on arranging more launches, which means that getting complete global coverage is only a matter of time.

Hiber, from The Netherlands, uses a different approach. “We at Hiber provide low-cost and low-power internet of things connectivity,” a spokesman told eWEEK. “In short, this means we can read out any sensor out in the open, anywhere in the world, starting with a ‘once per day’ service for only €6/year/sensor. As we add more satellites to the network, our capacity will further improve as well as our service levels.”

The 6 euro-per-year price is seriously inexpensive, and the ability of the Hiber satellites to read any sensor anywhere in the world means that communications even in remote areas of the world are now possible. The sensors that Hiber can make available include environmental sensors or position sensors far from cell towers or from WiFi. If a shipping company needs to keep tabs on the location of a critical shipping container, this is one way to do it.

Some Satellites Are the Size of a Sandwich

One of the more intriguing satellites included in the plans for today’s launch is from a company called Swarm Technologies, based in Palo Alto, Calif. Swarm is planning to launch hundreds of tiny satellites that are approximately the size and shape of a cheese sandwich. These hundreds of satellites are promised to form the lowest-cost satellite network available, and like the others, they are aimed at IoT communications.

Swarm got into trouble with the FCC, which has to approve satellite launches by American companies, because of a licensing mix-up. But since then, it has since been granted approval to fly and communicate with its satellites. Currently, the company has seven satellites in orbit: three launched Dec. 3 and four launched in January.

While all of these satellites are being launched, the one thing that’s missing is some means of communicating with the ground. That problem is being addressed by Audacy, which is providing a commercial space data relay service that connects satellites, in the words of the company, “From the launchpad to the Moon.” Audacy’s first data-relay satellite was launched along with the IoT satellites on the same mission.

While it’s not clear which of these IoT satellites will prove to be the one that catches fire in the minds of the industry, it’s clear that the operators of these space resources see that true global communications for the internet of things is a real need. In some ways, they will help bring that possibility about, because if the communications infrastructure is there, and if it’s affordable, then the users will come.

New IoT Infrastructure Is Now in the Works

The infrastructure is already beginning to be built in space. Spaceflight is launching these satellites on every platform it can find. The Dec. 3 launch was the biggest single launch of this type of satellite, but every time a rocket launches with a few more on board, the web of IoT connectivity will grow. Critical mass may not happen in 2019, but it won’t take long after that before the challenges of IoT communications go away and communications become as ubiquitous as cell phones are to people.

Oh, and for those who just can’t resist a look at a perfect SpaceX launch, you can watch it here.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...